The Book of Love: The emotional epic love story of 2018 by the Irish Times bestseller
The Book of Love: The emotional epic love story of 2018 by the Irish Times bestseller
Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd
1 London Bridge Street
London SE1 9GF
First published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers 2018
Copyright © Fionnuala Kearney 2018
Cover design by Ellie Game © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2018
Fionnuala Kearney asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.
Source ISBN: 9780007594016
Ebook Edition © October 2018 ISBN: 9780007594023
For Eamonn and Mary and also Jim and Monicawho once loved like this.
Chapter 1. Dominic
Chapter 2. Erin
Chapter 3. Erin
Chapter 4. Dominic
Chapter 12. Erin
Chapter 13. Dominic
Chapter 14. Erin
Chapter 15. Erin
Chapter 16. Dominic
Chapter 17. Erin
Chapter 18. Erin
Chapter 19. Erin
Chapter 20. Dominic
Chapter 21. Dominic
Chapter 22. Erin
Chapter 23. Dominic
Chapter 24. Dominic
Chapter 25. Erin
Chapter 26. Dominic
Chapter 27. Dominic
Chapter 28. Erin
Chapter 29. Dominic
Chapter 30. Dominic
Chapter 31. Erin
Chapter 32. Dominic
Chapter 33. Erin
Chapter 34. Dominic
Chapter 35. Erin
Chapter 36. Dominic
Chapter 37. Erin
Chapter 38. Dominic
Chapter 39. Erin
Chapter 40. Dominic
Chapter 41. Erin
Chapter 42. Dominic
A Q&A with Fionnuala Kearney
Book Club Questions for The Book of Love by Fionnuala Kearney
Read More …
About the Author
Also by Fionnuala Kearney
About the Publisher
NOW – 3rd June 2017
From The Book of Love:
‘I love you because you found me.’
I’m wide awake when I shouldn’t be. Completely still, I’m sitting bolt upright on the edge of our bed, ears pricked for any hint of her. There’s nothing but familiar sounds from the old building echoing in the silence. A fly buzzes around the bedroom window. Through the oak floorboards, from below in the kitchen, the fridge motor whines. The pipes groan in the walls like a quick, expectant heartbeat. Even the house misses Erin.
Standing, I stretch tall, my hands just about touching the ceiling. Then I start my sweep of 44 Valentine’s Way, my early walkabout. The children’s bedrooms get a mere glance, nothing new there but another fine layer of dust. I head downstairs, my left hand tracing the original, deco style, curved staircase. At the bottom, just to the right in the study, the desk lamp that sits next to a pile of architectural drawings is switched on. A glance past them, to my paper diary, brings a stabbing memory of Erin, months ago, trying to convince me to digitally diarise everything onto my phone. I resisted, laughed, ignored the jibe about my Jurassic ways and reminded her that it was she who’d dragged me kicking and screaming to the written word in the first place.
Today’s date, with a spidery doodle right in the middle of the page also confirms Lydia’s birthday party tonight. My sister will have staff, borrowed from the cafés she owns, bearing trays of minuscule canapés and warm prosecco. She’ll be floating through our group of friends, and some of hers whom I don’t know, with a painted smile firmly in place, pretending everything’s fine.
The phone ringing in the hall makes me flinch but I don’t move, sensing it will be another hang-up.
‘Hi,’ Erin says from beyond the doorway. ‘We’re not home right now. Leave a message.’ My voice pitches in, ‘If anyone cares, I’m not here either’ and she giggles just before the beep and the final click. I walk to the hall – hear her laugh resonate, almost bounce off the walls, and wonder how days without her seem so achingly exhausting. It’s always been like that. From that first moment I saw her, and her ridiculous dancing, to the last time we spoke, she has lived in my soul. She just moved in, took up residence. No discussion. No permission. No regrets.
Without realising it, I’ve approached the mahogany console table, towards the single drawer. The book seems to beckon to me. I imagine flashing lights warning me of the perils ahead, yet the comfort of it in my hand brings familiar relief; the soft nappa leather, like myself, scarred in places. I find myself fanning our handwritten pages. They smell of Erin, a vague whiff of her peony scent. I raise them to my face and inhale deeply before opening it on her last entry. In the hallway of the home we made together, I pace the tiled black and white floor. The first rays of morning light from the glazed dome in the roof above help me read her words aloud:
12th May 2017
Back in August 2004, you took something from here, remember?
Sometimes, usually lying in bed around daybreak, I wonder – no, more than that, I’m quite desperate to know – whether we might have avoided so much heartache if you hadn’t.
I mean, what if you’d left that page where it was meant to be? What if those words had been the very words in our book of love that you really needed to say to me back then? Maybe you were honest, reached out, even asked for help. And maybe if I’d read those words of yours at that time, things might have been different? What if I’d been able to see them by holding the next page up to the light and tracing the faint imprint of your pen?
I tried – it only works in the movies.
I know, I know. You call me ‘The Queen of What Ifs’. But this is just one of the things that haunts me when I wake too early in those dawn-drenched hours.
You tell me not to be silly, not to dwell on the past. You hold me and tell me everything happens as it’s meant to, not exactly ‘for a reason’, but ‘life’, you say all the time, ‘life unfolds just the way it should’.
So, that missing page stayed very much missing. Absent. Gone. I never knew what it said, and you’ve never told me. And life unfolded the way it was meant to and there was heartache – but so much love too. God, there was so much love.
There is still love.
That’s what I cling to in those restless hours that follow night.
I remind myself that love endures.
I sit down on the first stair. The closed front door opposite seems to taunt me. ‘What if she walked in here now?’ My whisper is just about audible.
My ‘Queen of What Ifs …’ I’d hold her, touch the soft skin on her face with my fingertips and tell her that she’s right, that it’s love that brings meaning to life.
THEN – December 1996
‘Because without love, you’re screwed,’ Seamus Fitzpatrick, Fitz, to his friends and audience, announced.
Erin felt Dom squeeze her hand, followed his nervous glance across the table. Seeing her new mother-in-law’s pinched lips, she looked away and focused instead on a wet ring mark on the paper tablecloth.
‘We’ve another way of saying that in Ireland, you know, “screwed”, but when in Rome and all that.’ Fitz laughed; a soft, uneasy sound.
Oh God, thought Erin. Please don’t swear. Sit down now, Dad. Sit. Please.
She swallowed hard as his voice filled the small room. It was a private space at the back of the King’s Arms located right across the street from the registry office. It wasn’t the sort of place she’d imagined her wedding might be. Like almost every small girl, she had, once upon a time, pictured herself in an elegant gown saying her vows in a quaint village chapel. At a grand reception, there would have been a feast followed by a practised first waltz by the bride and groom to ‘their song’.
A room in a pub, slightly sticky underfoot, with smoke-scented flock wallpaper, worn velvet seating, loops of stringy tinsel and Christmas lights with missing bulbs had never been part of the dream. And she and Dom hadn’t known one another long enough yet to have ‘a song’. Erin rubbed her hand over her belly as a familiar anxiety began to gnaw. They’d known each other long enough to create the human being that danced inside her, but not long enough to have a song. It was only Dom’s hand on hers that calmed her doubts, reminding her that she had got the most important thing right. Dominic Carter was a prince among men.
‘See, without love,’ her father continued, ‘you’re just two people roaming through life, wandering around in a valley of … a valley of tears.’
Resisting the urge to pull on his sleeve, instead she prayed to her mother. Make him sit down, Mam, please.
‘So, it does fill me with joy …’
She looked up and her face crumpled as Fitz started to cry.
‘It fills me with joy,’ he sniffed, ‘to see that you two really do love each other, so bear with me while I say,’ he peeked at her and Dom over the rim of his oval, steel-rimmed spectacles, ‘keep hold of that love and you’ll be grand.’
Erin’s mouth twitched as she attempted a smile.
‘Finally, let’s raise a glass to the bride and groom. I wish you both health and happiness and family that will love and anchor you.’
‘Thanks, Dad,’ she touched his arm, his new, but ill-fitting, suit as he sat down.
‘Your mam would have been so proud of you today,’ he smiled.
‘Thanks, Dad,’ Erin repeated and stared at her bump. There had been no way or no gown to hide it and everyone who was there knew anyway.
‘Was it alright?’ Fitz asked.
She told her father that his speech had been perfect as she, once again, looked across the circular table towards her in-laws. Sophie was scooping imaginary crumbs from the table. Gerard smiled, gave a small nod in her direction.
‘Perhaps I shouldn’t have—’ Her father leaned into her as he drained his glass. She crooked an arm around his neck and kissed his cheek.
‘I told you, Dad, it was really perfect. Thank you.’
Three round tables of ten people squeezed into the room created the background noise that she and Dom needed. ‘You wanna get out of here?’ her husband whispered.
‘You know we can’t.’ She felt his sigh in her ear and shivered. There was nothing she wanted more than to get back to the flat and curl up in bed with this man and their bump.
‘Okay, we’ll stay a bit longer,’ he agreed. ‘But no one really expects us to hang around drinking, love.’
‘Let’s circulate, give it another half hour,’ she said. Pulling herself to a standing position, she dismissed thoughts of the absent music and first dance, reminded herself to be grateful to Dom for putting this together so quickly – on his own, without much help from her or anyone. ‘I’m going for a quick pee,’ she whispered before heading to the back of the function room towards the corridor and the loos. Just as she was about to turn the corner, a voice she recognised stopped her in her tracks.
Erin’s hand automatically protected her stomach. Every nerve ending in her body told her to turn around; that she had no business listening, but her feet had rooted to the tacky carpet.
‘You’re tired. We’ll go soon.’
‘Gerard, do not patronise me! I’m not tired. I simply can’t stand the girl.’
‘That “girl”, as you call her, is carrying our grandchild. Keep your bloody voice down.’
Erin backed herself up against the wall. She tried to edge each vertebra, one by one against it, suddenly caring little for the off-white dress she had carefully chosen in a small vintage shop near Putney. Closing her eyes, she willed herself invisible.
‘Is she?’ Sophie hissed. ‘We don’t know that, do we, and he’s too besotted to care!’
‘Stop!’ her husband snapped. ‘You want to go, we’ll go, but this is not the time or the place for a scene.’
She should walk on up there, Erin told herself. Just walk on up that narrow, dirt-brown corridor, make her way slowly past them, brandishing her bump between them. She should smile sweetly at her mother-in-law, and widen her grateful eyes at Gerard, the man who thankfully seemed to have donated most of Dom’s character. Erin knew what she should do but, instead, she pleaded with her bladder and backed into the room to mingle with their friends as best she could.
‘You look angelic,’ Lydia whispered.
‘Divine,’ Hannah agreed.
‘Well, I would,’ Nigel, Dom’s best man grinned. ‘Seriously, there’s something very sexy about pregnant women.’
And with one eye on Sophie emerging from the corridor, Erin laughed.
Later, as they were leaving, everyone made a guard of honour to an out of tune ‘Here Comes the Bride’. It was only as Dom steered her underneath, past Fitz and her brother Rob, that Erin saw Sophie waiting at the very end. She would be waiting to whisper that he’d always have a home if he changed his mind. Erin stooped low. Dom was not going to change his mind. Dom loved her. He hadn’t stopped smiling since she’d told him about the baby. And even though she had never asked it or expected it of him, Dom had asked her to marry him within days of the news. Dom had married her. Because he loved her.
He pulled her through the arch and as she stood, she leaned into Gerard’s kiss, matched her mother-in-law’s air kiss, and gripped her new husband’s hand. At the door, she was pulled into another hug as Dom tried to help her with her coat.
‘I’ll call you tomorrow,’ Lydia squeezed hard. ‘Get some sleep.’
Erin nodded. It had been a long day, but she hugged her sister-in-law back.
‘Look after that brother of mine.’ Lydia smiled. ‘He’s the only one I’ve got.’
Erin nodded, pulled Hannah, her other bridesmaid, into the hug and scanned the room until her eyes rested on Fitz and Rob, who, hating goodbyes, had moved away from the door. When her father placed his fingers on his lips and blew her a kiss, and her only brother winked, Erin nodded and fought back tears.
Nigel handed Dom the car keys and smiled at Erin. ‘It’s outside and all warmed up for you, love.’
‘Thanks, Nigel,’ she whispered. Sometimes it was the small acts of kindness from people that made her fill up. She looked at Sophie, who was wringing her hands. And sometimes, she thought, it was cutting words that did it. Against all her better instincts, she turned back to her mother-in-law and whispered. ‘I love your son and he will always know that. Always.’
Her response was the tiniest nod, a minute jerk of the woman’s disapproving head, a cold but noticeable acknowledgement.
In the car, they both shivered. Dom reached over and rubbed her arms with his hands. ‘Who the hell gets married in December?’ he asked, laughing. ‘Right, let’s get you home to bed.’
She closed her eyes briefly, wanting to commit that moment to memory – his desire to keep her warm, to get her back safely. At twenty-seven, Dom’s wedding night should have involved honeymoon sex, lots of it. Part of her felt she should apologise – not just for the lack of wedding night love-making but the whole thing. The whole ‘meet a girl and within seven months find out she’s pregnant and five months later marry her’ thing. Whirlwind didn’t cover it.
He placed a hand inside her coat and squeezed her knee, bare but for the flesh-coloured tights she’d worn with her short, fitted, lace dress. ‘Never more,’ he said.
She laughed. ‘How did you know what I was going to ask?’
‘Because I can read your mind. Plus you ask me every night if I’m happy.’
She stared out the window at the shadows of the icy fir trees that lined the edge of the street. ‘Just making sure …’
‘Uh-huh?’ She leaned forward towards the heated air coming from the front vents.
‘Promise me something?’
‘Believe that I’m happy. I wouldn’t be here with you, with you both, unless I wanted to be. So, after today, no more making sure, okay?’
‘I promise not to ask you if you’re happy again, unless I’m really unsure for a very good reason.’
Dom shook his head. ‘Negotiating already! Christ, what have I done?’
Minutes later he pulled the car to a stop just outside the building they lived in. ‘Thank you, parking fairies,’ Erin whispered. 27 Hawthorn Avenue had, in Victorian times, been home to single families; gentile people whom Erin often imagined roaming through the rooms. Today, the building was divided into three flats and she and Dom lived in the high-ceilinged rooms of the ground floor, giving them access to their own private garden. Despite having Gerard and Sophie Carter as landlords, Erin loved living there; loved the original ornate cornice and ceiling roses, loved the stone fireplace in the living room, the picture rail in their bedroom, and the groaning wooden floors with years of story in every creak. Having come from a sixties-built, two-up two-down that her parents had mortgaged to buy from the local council, Erin loved the fact that she could feel the history in this house.
‘Right,’ he said, putting an arm around her and locking the car with the remote. ‘How are we going to do this?’ he asked as they neared the main front door. ‘Is this the threshold or is it the door to the flat?’
‘Dom, no, it’s too awkward, I’m too—’
Before she could finish the sentence, he handed her the keys and scooped her up into his arms, carrying her with one arm under her back and the other under her knees. She opened the door laughing. ‘That’s enough!’ she cried.
‘No! We have to do the other one too. Just in case. It might be bad luck!’
After entering the flat, Erin was lowered to the floor. And as Dom feigned an injured back, rolling on the hard, varnished wooden planks, his hand hitting against their three-foot plastic tree with its red and green baubles, her own hand rested on the moving child. Their baby was laughing too.
It was, according to things she’d read on the subject, nature’s way of preparing her but Erin was tired of being tired, of not being able to sleep at night and having to snatch catch-up naps during the day. She shook the kettle on top of the Aga and moved it to the centre of the heat, careful to stand there as it came to the boil; the thing had a high-pitched whistle and she didn’t want to wake Dom.
As she stirred a camomile teabag in a large mug, she walked past the sink, towards the pile of presents sitting on the kitchen table. Her empty teacup from this morning, when she’d been a single woman, sat upside down on the draining board. She took a seat at the head of the table – solid oak, country style with carver legs and a cutlery drawer at one end – it had been a present from the Carter family. They had offered to pay for a wedding; probably somewhere like Erin had dreamed of, but neither she nor Dom had wanted to accept, sensing a disapproval of Erin that was never discussed.
She ran her hand over the array of gifts. There was only one in the tall mound that she was interested in opening, one she knew Dom wouldn’t mind her getting the first look at. Fitz had wrapped it in old newspapers, bound it with blue ribbon.
The box was flat, A4 size and inside it, amongst layers of tissue paper, lay a leather-bound notebook. A bitter chocolate colour, soft nappa leather, with an opening flap like an envelope. From the point of the flap came a single strand of leather to tie around it. Picking it up, it felt lighter in her hand than she’d imagined. Her forefinger traced the embossed words on the front:
What am I?
I am The Book of Love,
The pages of truth with its light and shade.
I am Love,
And if real, I will never fade.
Opening it, a card fell to the table and on the back, her father’s handwriting:
Erin and Dom, your mother and I used to do this. I’d swear it rescued us from many sticky times so this is a ‘borrowed’ idea for your gift. I hope you use it like we did – to talk to one another – to write down whatever it is you can’t bring yourselves to say. In years to come, this book will be a place where you’ll look back and read about the things you were possibly too young or naïve to understand. Only two rules – First, don’t do it too often, it’s a route to talking about difficult things, not the only place to mention them. And second, when you write something, start and end it with love, like ‘My dearest Erin/Dom’ etc. and always, ALWAYS end it with a reminder to each other that you love each other and why e.g. ‘I love you because …’
Erin appreciated the thought in the gift but still replaced it in its box shaking her head, unable to imagine a time when she and Dom couldn’t simply say exactly what they wanted to one another.
The sound of the soft pad of his feet on the tiled floor made her turn around.
‘Come to bed, love.’ Dom, wearing striped pyjama bottoms but bare chested, rubbed one of his eyes.
‘I can’t sleep.’ From behind, she felt both his arms circle her waist.
‘It’s three a.m.’ he yawned. ‘What’s in the box?’
‘A gift from Dad.’
Dom pulled a chair up beside her, took a sip from her mug and grimaced. ‘No wonder you can’t sleep. That stuff is powdered shit.’ His head jerked towards the gift. ‘So, what is it?’
‘It doesn’t matter – just one of Dad’s hare-brained ideas.’
Dom took her hand. ‘You remember when we first met, Mrs Carter?’
She laughed. ‘It was only a year ago. Of course.’
‘Lydia’s New Year party. The first time I saw you, you were dancing, all five-foot-ten of you.’ He stroked the downy hair on her arm. ‘You were doing that weird hippy-sway-thing you do, those long limbs of yours flailing about.’
‘You called me Tree-Girl and I hated you.’
‘You fancied me.’
‘Okay, I fancied you a little. I hated the nickname.’
‘I knew I’d marry you, right then, that first moment I saw you.’
‘You did not.’
‘I did so.’
Erin cupped his stubbled chin in her hands, focused on the amber speckles in his tired brown eyes. ‘Really?’
‘Really,’ he nodded. ‘Mind you, if I’d known I’d be awake at three a.m. on my sexless wedding night, I’d have left you there, bopping away in the living room.’
‘I’d have turned right around and never looked back.’
‘You know me so well,’ he smiled.
She stared back at the box. ‘You reckon we’ll always be able to talk to one another. Like this? Just spit out whatever’s on our mind?’
‘Sure. As long as it’s not always at three a.m. It’s been a long day, love, come back to bed?’
Erin sighed, stood up with him and slipped into the crook of his arm, knowing he wouldn’t sleep again unless she tried to.
Seconds later, when they climbed into bed, she shivered in the cold sheets. She curled her body into a foetal position, slipped gratefully into his spoon, instantly feeling his body warm hers; feeling his quiet mind soothe hers; feeling his love melt from his pores into hers, nourishing her. In the slivers of light angling through the Venetian blind, she caught sight of the third finger on his left hand where, rather than a ring, he’d had ‘Erin forever’ tattooed. His mother had almost had a coronary when she saw it. Erin had loved it, unable to believe that any man, especially this man; this man who had such passion for everything, had stamped himself as hers.
Her hand squeezed his. With her free hand, she reached back and touched his cheek, the scent of leather still lingering on her fingertips.
‘I am Love,’ she whispered.
‘You too,’ he said softly.
She smiled and closed her eyes.
THEN – April 1997
‘You’re kidding, right?’
Dom was shaking his head, his expression deadpan.
‘Yes, you are! You’re kidding,’ Erin laughed. ‘Even you wouldn’t suggest strip poker to a woman who’s nine months pregnant and who can no longer see her feet.’
She watched him as he held the tray steady in his hands, almost tripping over the small hospital bag she’d packed weeks ago.
‘What? So, I get a cup of tea and toast in bed if we play “because it’s the weekend and we can”?’
‘Yep,’ he said setting the tray down beside her. ‘And I’ll thrash you. You will be naked first.’
Erin took a bite of toast, flicked the crumbs from her flannel pyjamas, remembering the first outing of naked card games. It was only weeks after they met and they hadn’t left her room for an entire weekend. ‘I have two items of clothing on and I’m not taking them off,’ she said, but he was already pulling a deck of cards from his pocket.
‘Well, you’d better win then, hadn’t you?’
Erin groaned. ‘Dom … I—’ She felt his eyes on her.
‘You’re beautiful,’ he told her. ‘I know you don’t feel it right now but there is nothing sexier than your pregnant body having my baby. And I’m trying to keep your mind off that – the “having the baby” thing.’
Erin rubbed her tongue over her front teeth. She had morning breath. She had crumbs sticking to the creases at the edge of her lips. She’d been hoping for a lie-in, but here he was with his breakfast tray and his infectious way. She smiled, her hand held aloft for some of the cards he was already shuffling. ‘Hang onto your trousers, Dom,’ she said.
‘Won’t need to.’ He took a bite of her toast. ‘Ugh, sorry. It’s a bit cold.’
‘When I win, you can go and make some more.’
‘When I win, after you’ve put some clothes back on, I’ll take you out for an early lunch.’
‘Deal,’ she said, curling her hair around her ears, already practising her best poker face.
Having spent a perfect, lazy day with Dom, Erin leaned against the back doorway and tried to swallow a sense of unease. Her natural anxiety was, of late, worsened by pregnancy hormones.
‘You don’t understand,’ she whispered, her hand making tiny circles around her navel.
‘So, explain it to me.’ Dom stopped her hand moving by taking it in his.
Her voice faltered, unsure. ‘I suppose I’m afraid.’
‘Of what? I mean tell me exactly what you’re afraid of.’
Erin lowered her eyes. Just outside the door by her stockinged feet lay a cluster of late-blooming crocuses still not quite ready for spring. Maybe the next day, she thought, maybe the next day the purple and golden yellow flowers would open and flash their bright stamens proudly. She watched her bump rise and fall with the pull and push of her lungs. And maybe once her baby was born she would feel ready to become a mother.
Sometimes she couldn’t believe that there was another human being alive inside of her. Other times, the ones when the child kicked and complained in the confined space of her stretched womb, she was acutely aware of it. And tonight, as her insides tightened with more Braxton Hicks contractions, ‘teasers’ that could only have been named such by a man – she wondered if now would be a good time to tell Dom that she wasn’t doing this ever again. The thought of having someone else taking over her body again …
‘Talk to me,’ he pressed her.
She closed her eyes, conscious that if she said how she really felt, was truly honest with him, Dom would only worry. She could have confessed she was afraid that becoming parents would change them, that their love might not have space for another person. She might have told him that her hormones seemed to play havoc with old anxieties, fears that had been prodded and poked awake. She might have told him she was afraid she was going to die in childbirth. The sensible part of her brain knew there was nothing logical about the panic that set in when she thought about giving birth, but … She batted away the scary thoughts.
‘Erin?’ Dom said.
Raising his hand to her face, she angled it to cup her cheek, leaning into it. ‘I’m just being silly.’
She felt his lips on her forehead – a kiss that confirmed he was right there with her, that he would listen to her ‘silly’ if she wanted him to. But Erin remained quiet, unable to speak her doubts to her waiting husband who believed he could kiss her fears away.
Four days to go to her due date and the thoughts lined up now, colliding anxiously with one another. What if, she asked him silently in her frightened head, what if I die and leave you alone? What if I live and we have a beautiful child and I can’t love it? What if I love it more than you? What if I stay this weight – will you ever fancy me again? What if we’ve forgotten how to make love? She thought of earlier when he’d beaten her at strip poker and they had lain in the bed naked, just holding each other. She gripped her tightening stomach and breathed through the discomfort.
‘You got those false contraction things again?’ he asked, and she nodded, thinking he too could probably feel them as he held her. ‘Must be the weirdest thing.’
‘Yep,’ she pulled away from him and doubled over placing her hands on her knees. ‘Though these ones haven’t gone away,’ she said, one hand straight away steadying herself in the doorway.
‘Breathe.’ Dom rubbed her back. ‘Slowly.’
And that’s what she was doing, breathing away the uncomfortable ‘teasers’, feeling Dom’s hand massaging her back gently, when she felt a small pop and watched water trickle down her legs onto her socks.
‘Shit!’ Dom reared upwards. ‘Is that …?’
Erin straightened. ‘Get the bag, love.’
‘Right,’ he was staring at her.
‘Dom, the bag?’ She closed the back door, turning the key in the lock, moving the handle up and down to make sure.
She nodded. ‘The—’
‘I know, the bag.’ Dom patted his pockets as if the ordered holdall she’d packed six weeks ago could be found in one, and Erin reached for his hand.
‘I’m okay,’ she said, and in that same moment recognised all her own worries in his darting eyes. Of course. Of course, he was frightened too. ‘I’m okay.’ She squeezed his hand.
He nodded before moving at speed to their bedroom.
‘Get me some clean knickers and leggings,’ she called after him.
She heard him in the next room pulling out drawers, muttering to himself, and she began to peel her lower clothes from her body. With the leggings she’d been wearing, she wiped the tiny puddle of water from the floor, ignoring the thought that she’d expected a torrent, a waterfall, and that if that was all the amniotic fluid in her, it could only mean the rest was all baby. ‘Shit,’ she whispered to no one but herself.
She was stood at the sink, filling the plastic basin with hot water and swishing her soiled clothes with her hands when Dom was suddenly by her side.
‘Okay, let’s get going,’ he laid a gentle arm around her shoulder.
Erin gripped the sink, a wave of pain and nausea overcoming her. ‘Knick-ers,’ she panted.
‘Yes, sorry, I put them in the bag.’ Dom unzipped the bag and bent down, sliding the knickers up over Erin’s legs. She winced as she felt pinching lace and realised he’d obviously picked a pair from the pre-pregnancy drawer she hoped to return to someday.
‘A thong?’ she asked as she felt the useless triangle of material sit somewhere on her lower bump and a thin elastic line wedge between her bum cheeks.
‘God! Sorry.’ He was already pulling her foot through one leg of a pair of black leggings and began to peel it from her again.
Erin tried to smile. ‘Leave it – it’s fine,’ she said gripping hold of his shoulder just as another contraction threatened. ‘It’ll give the nurses a laugh. Now, hospital,’ she said as she pulled the leggings up as far as they would go. ‘And step on it.’
‘Nooooooooo!’ Erin cried out as Susan, a heavy-set midwife from the west of Ireland, whom they had met nine hours earlier, now mentioned the word ‘doctor’. She had read the books, heard other women’s stories. A doctor meant a caesarean. She could do this. Her eyes fixed on Dom’s – deep brown – set beneath a sweaty, worried brow and above a surgical mask. ‘Tell them I can do it.’ She gripped his hand. ‘Ple-ea-se …’
Dom stood, not letting go of her. ‘She says she can do it,’ he announced to the room in some weird ‘I’m in charge’ voice that she had never heard before but loved him for.
‘Okay, Erin,’ Susan looked up at her from between her legs. ‘We’ll give it one more go. Breathe now … then wait for this next one before pushing,’ she said, glancing at the screen to her side. Erin had just a few moments to catch her breath before she could feel it rolling inside her; another pain that would gather speed like a determined tide. She tried to control it, watched the monitor strap across her middle stretch and breathed into it just before a torturous tightening racked her body. Without waiting to be told, Erin pushed to the point that she felt as if her head might explode. This was nothing like any book had told her; nothing like the classes she and Dom had practised simple breathing exercises in. And as she screamed into the final thrust that would give birth to her child, she felt sure her body would snap in two.
‘Push, love, push,’ Dom urged, and she wanted to thump him. She wanted to yell at him; ask him how exactly he’d shit a melon, but she needed any energy she had and the only sound that left her mouth was a long wail – a piercing cry that lasted the length of time it took for her baby to emerge. And when she finally breathed again, it was to the sound of Dom sobbing. ‘You did it, sweetheart. Jesus, you did it.’
Erin waited for a baby’s cry. She tried to raise herself up on her elbows. ‘Where …’
And then she heard it, a tiny mewling yelp, again, nothing like she’d been led to believe it would sound.
‘You have a little girl,’ Susan smiled at her as she wiped the struggling baby before placing her on Erin’s chest. Erin stared, mute, at the frowning bloodied infant, all wrinkles and wriggling limbs. She pulled her into her arms, checked for fingers and toes. Dom’s face grazed against hers and together they watched as their newborn opened her eyes. The books were wrong again. Because Erin felt that their daughter could really see already – had spotted them, focused on them both as if to say, ‘Hello, Mummy and Daddy. I’m here. Are you the people who’ve been talking to me for so long?’
She clutched her baby, ignored the commotion south of her waist; paid no attention to words like ‘afterbirth’ and ‘stitches’.
‘You were so brave,’ Dom whispered. ‘Isn’t she beautiful?’
Erin wasn’t sure. She wasn’t sure if their child was yet beautiful but was quite sure that one day she would be. She wasn’t sure if she’d been brave or obstinate and wondered if there would be enough dissolvable thread in the ward, in the world, to stitch both halves of her back together again.
She was sure of the clear vision she had of Dom as Daddy with his little girl riding her bike without stabilisers for the first time. She was sure of his voice acting out the characters during many bedtime stories. She was sure of the surge of love she felt for this tiny human being who had claimed her body for so long. It was more powerful than any pain she’d endured, more powerful than any pregnancy magazines had reported. ‘Hello, little one,’ she said. ‘Welcome.’
And Erin Carter was in love for only the second time in her life.
When she woke, she woke to every part of her hurting. She woke to a stomach so bulging that she wondered if she’d dreamt the whole thing, or if the medical staff had left another baby behind. Dom was sitting in the chair next to her bed, feeding the child from a tiny bottle. Erin felt a pulling ache in her breasts. She willed herself to sit up, to say no, that she wanted to feel her baby latch onto her nipple, but the words wouldn’t form.
Dom reached across to her. ‘Sleep, my love, you’re exhausted.’ He stood, holding their baby daughter in one arm and stroking Erin’s forehead with the other hand. She felt the rhythmic swipe of his hand on her brow; hypnotic. Seized by a sudden panic, she whispered his name. ‘Dom …’
‘You need to rest, love. Your blood pressure’s low.’
Erin’s breathing only levelled when she reached out and touched their child.
‘I’ve got this,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry.’
Erin didn’t tell her eyes to close, but they did and underneath her eyelids, she told herself there would be plenty of time for her to feed her baby. There would be time enough to feel her suckle and to nourish her from her swollen milk ducts. For now, all Erin could feel was a flame like heat surging through the bottom half of her body and for the first time since her waters had broken she thought of herself.
Something was wrong.
You’re not going to die.
But something was wrong.
There’s nothing wrong. Sleep. And stop thinking bad thoughts. You have someone else to think about now.
‘You do.’ From nowhere, her own mother’s voice punctured her thoughts. ‘You’re a Mummy now. I’m so sad I can’t be with you.’
‘Nothing’s wrong, Erin.’
In her mind, she saw her mother smile, from where she stood just beyond Dom and their baby. She was wearing her favourite dungarees and a colourful scarf rested on her shoulders over a white shirt. Erin’s heartbeat quickened. ‘Relax, she’s fine,’ her mum reassured her. ‘You are going to be a wonderful mother but for now, you need to rest. Dom’s got this.’
Since opening her eyes, Erin had been resisting the slide back into sleep, fearful she’d never wake up.
Relax. Dom’s got this.
And as she fought sleep and worry and joy and pain, tears slid from her heavy eyelids because today of all days she really wanted her mother with her.
Forty-eight hours later, two days of antibiotics inside her to deal with a postpartum infection, Erin was showered and about to dress when Dom appeared at the end of the bed, his head poking around the curtain. Their daughter slept peacefully, swaddled in a bright lemon woollen blanket.
‘Hey, gorgeous.’ Dom came in and leant into the clear hospital cot to kiss their child.
‘How are you feeling?’ he asked, hugging her gently.
‘The nurses fed her in the night so I’m not too bad. I managed a feed yesterday evening and first thing today and we did alright. We need to choose a name,’ she kept her voice low as she pulled on a T-shirt over her maternity bra. ‘And stop ogling my boobs,’ she grinned at her husband.
‘I can’t help myself. They’re like one of the wonders of the world.’
‘For now, they’re Rachel’s,’ she nodded towards their baby.
‘You mean Maisie’s,’ he replied, both hands on his hips. ‘And we should teach her to share from the get-go. Don’t you think Maisie suits her face?’
Erin smiled. ‘What about Rachel, with Maisie as the middle name?’
‘Or just Maisie,’ he grinned. ‘Look there’s something—’
‘What?’ Erin’s hand rooted in the bag for some underwear she’d packed right at the bottom, but her hand landed on the thong from the day she’d arrived.
‘I know you’re exhausted and I promise it won’t be for long.’
She frowned, turned her eyes on her husband, sensing what was coming immediately.
‘She’s their first grandchild. They haven’t wanted to intrude so far and just want a quick peek, so they’re going to pop in for ten minutes when we get home.
Erin flopped onto the bed, sighed loudly before placing the thong on her head.
Dom narrowed his eyes and she sensed him watching as she put on a pair of bigger knickers and bent down to pull the leggings back up her body. ‘I don’t know what I was thinking,’ she said grabbing hold of her middle and jiggling it. ‘I packed my jeans in the bag. A little optimistic, I now realise.’
‘You did hear me saying Mum and Dad are popping in?’
Erin locked eyes with him. ‘I heard you. Ten minutes.’
‘That’s all. You do know you have a thong on your head?’ he asked as he sat beside her.
‘I do.’ She pulled it down around her neck. ‘I’ll wear it as a necklace until it fits my huge ass again.’ She rested her head on his shoulder and together they stared at their baby.
‘You think she’ll always be this quiet?’ he tucked a corner of the blanket that had loosened into its fold.
‘In your dreams … She just likes to be swaddled.’
Dom smiled, and she stared up at him. ‘What?’ she asked.
‘You know this already,’ he said. ‘Swaddling stuff. You are going to be brilliant.’
‘Flattery … I’m still wearing a thong around my neck when your mother calls.’
Dom laughed, stood and pulled her upright. ‘She either won’t notice, or she won’t say a word. Overnight you’ve been elevated to superstar. No pain relief except gas and air, a healthy eight-and-a-half-pound baby girl. According to Dad, Mum’s knitting needles have been clacking all night – all pink wool, of course.’
Erin grimaced. She couldn’t imagine Sophie wanting to do anything for her with a knitting needle other than stab her through the heart, but she nodded obligingly, willing to, once again, give her mother-in-law the benefit of the doubt for the sake of her husband.
‘I’ll just go and check they’re ready to let you out of here.’ Dom was beyond the curtain before she could tell him she already knew the paperwork had been signed off. They were waiting for her to go. There was likely another woman already screaming in the labour ward who’d need her bed. Erin laid another blanket from her bag on the bed; multi-coloured, made up of small crochet squares – something her own mother had made for her. She had washed it carefully in soft soap, and now halved the square blanket into a triangle.
Gently she lifted the baby from the cot and placed her in the centre, pulling each corner across her tiny body, thinking Dom was right, she did look like a ‘Maisie’. The child stirred in her sleep, wrinkled her nose and Erin held her breath for a moment before raising her to her chest. She inhaled the heady scent from her dark brown, downy, hair.
You can do this.
‘Everything’s good to go.’ Dom swished the curtain aside. ‘All the paperwork’s been done. You alright, got everything?’ he asked.
You can do this. Mum’s not here but with Dom by your side, you can do this.
‘Everything that matters.’ Erin breathed deep and kissed Maisie’s head.
NOW – 3rd June 2017
From The Book of Love:
‘I love you because you put a triangle of Toblerone in my suit pocket.’
‘You know the expression “a New York minute”? It’s like the shortest measure of time ever but still so much can change within it? Well, that’s what it was like. Forget Cupid and his arrows – I was harpooned by Erin Fitzgerald!’ My eyes narrow. ‘Are you listening to me?’ I’m pointing a finger at a toy elephant. ‘She was dancing,’ I explain, ‘a hippy thing where her body just swayed, and she reminded me of a tree – tall with long, coppery hair, longer limbs, slender fingers.’
It’s raining outside, gloomy, relentless rain that started late morning and would have any June bride weeping. Our own trees in the back garden, two majestic oaks, a white blossomed japonicus, and a scattering of silver birches are clinging onto their leaves and blooms as the deluge pounds. I’m killing time before Lydia’s party talking to Maisie’s favourite toy, a threadbare, one-eared grey thing that still sits regally on one of the armchairs – I’ve never really understood why.
‘Anyway, there she was, this autumnal sycamore rooted firmly in the middle of the old swirly carpet, and all I could think of was what it might be like to feel those fingers rake through my hair or grip my back.’
I stare at the elephant. ‘I’m boring you …’ My head shakes and I refuse to see this scene as it is. A middle-aged shadow of the man I used to be speaking to a stuffed toy about how he met his wife.
‘I called her “Tree-Girl” …’ The elephant is tilting to one side and I straighten him up. ‘And she was Lydia’s new flatmate, so I suppose it’s down to her that we ever met?’
The beat of the rain makes me think of my sister’s disappointment today when her birthday barbecue has to shift indoors.
‘Erin made me a coffee and we ate chocolate from the fridge.’ I’m addressing Elephant again. ‘Toblerone. Hers. But my absolute favourite.’
My sigh is long. ‘Neither of us ever believed in that love-at-first-sight crap, but …’ I glance behind me. The neon clock on the wall says two more hours until I can leave for the party.
‘But,’ I reach for the elephant and slump into the sofa. ‘The thing is, that was then, and this is now.’
The elephant’s grey glass eyes look up at me from above his curled trunk and dirty tusks and for a New York minute, I think he understands.
‘In between we were happy, really happy. Sure, there were times …’ I hesitate, unwilling to confess my part in bad times, even to a soft toy. My eyes land on the leather book sitting on the coffee table in front of me. I never did put it back in the drawer. ‘And even through the shit, we loved each other, you know? And our children couldn’t have asked for a better mother. Honestly, she …’
The grey eyes seem to stretch, and I reply to the imaginary unasked question. ‘Me? Yes, I’ve been a good dad too. I think they’d both say that. They should be there tonight,’ I add. ‘Yes, I’ll probably see them there tonight.’
Two more hours. One hundred and twenty minutes. I seem to spend my time waiting for time to pass. Maybe I should just count to seven thousand two hundred.
‘Erin always had this thing,’ I’m still addressing the elephant but am mesmerised by the swaying trees outside, ‘she had a thing that I thought she’d trapped me.’ I laugh out loud. ‘Mum thought that for sure, but the idea never crossed my mind. Pregnant or not, all I wanted was to be with her. I think she got it – eventually …’
Elephant has fallen over. ‘She wasn’t always easy, you know. Back then she worried all of the time. God, she could sweat the small stuff, but managed to hide it well. I suppose we all have our disguises.’ I place him upright again. ‘What I’m trying to say is the good bits far outweighed the bad.’
I lay my head back on the sofa, try to ignore the fact that I’ve spent the last ten minutes – six hundred seconds – talking to an inanimate object. My eyelids lower.
In my sleep, I dream. I dream about Erin on our wedding day. I dream of Maisie. And I dream about elephants in the room.
THEN – January 1998
Erin drove … She drove faster than the legal speed limit told her she could, the needle on the dashboard sliding past eighty. It was only Maisie’s waking cry from her seat in the back that made her take her foot off the gas.
‘Sssh, darling.’ She reached behind and finding the baby’s lower leg, stroked it. ‘Nearly there, sweetheart.’
Maisie, the happiest child since the moment she first drew breath, gurgled a giddy response.
Erin angled the rear-view mirror and sang a nursery rhyme from her own childhood, something about Miss Polly having a dolly who was sick. Indicating off the M3, she smiled at the irony. Sick. Poor Dolly. Poor Erin.
In the narrow street outside the home she’d been raised in, Erin parked behind her father’s car. Fitz’s Toyota, with its thin layer of overnight frost still in place on the windscreen, seemed as old as him and she struggled to remember a time when he’d had another car. A mechanic by trade, at fifty-seven Fitz still worked full time and maintained that car engines were like human hearts. They needed looking after; loving, nurturing and occasional tuning. The front door to the house was open before her hand was off the wheel. Her father was opening the rear door cooing at the baby and removing her from her seat before Erin even had time to say hello.
‘You can go now,’ Fitz said as he walked off with his grandchild. Erin swung the baby bag over her shoulder, locked the car door and as soon as she saw her father’s hand reach back for her, she grabbed it, grateful.
‘Joking, of course. It’s always great to see my baby girl,’ he said. ‘Seeing her baby girl too is a bonus. Have you eaten?’
Erin nodded, her eyes cast downwards, sure that if she looked up she’d be caught in her lie. She’d fed Maisie. That was all that mattered. The thought of food today made her want to vomit.
They sat in the small kitchen at the rear of the house. Gone was the shiny pine table she and Rob had sat at for family meals and homework. Whoever had purchased it from the charity shop her father had donated it to would have had to sand away its wounds – some pen or felt-tip messages etched in the wood, her name where she had stabbed it for posterity with the point of her compass, the large dent that the frozen turkey had made one Christmas when her mother had dropped it. In its place was a strange-looking desk-like thing with the longer side placed up against the wall. Two odd chairs, one with stuffing oozing through a small hole, were parked at each end. There’s nothing worse, her father had once told her, than eating alone at a big table. Erin took the nearest chair and sat rocking Maisie on her lap.
‘Tea,’ Fitz announced, filling the kettle.
She breathed in the familiar room with its wallpaper of patterned tiles, each ‘tile’ with a different vegetable image. In the corner, a box containing stacks of What Car? magazines stood waiting to either be read again or passed on to someone who might want them. Beside it sat a smaller carton spilling with paperchains and tired tinsel. Relieved to be among her father’s chaos, she took a deep sigh – she was there – safe and sound.
‘You heard from Rob this week?’ she asked Fitz.
‘He called last night. Everything is going really well.’
It wasn’t what Erin wanted to hear. Her only brother leaving to live in New York to work for an American bank had come as a shock the previous Christmas. She still wasn’t sure if she’d forgiven him. Maisie, with one fist in her mouth, gnawing at her skin with her cutting teeth, tried to grab at anything in reach on the table with the other hand. Erin’s eyes were drawn to the centre, where a well-thumbed notebook sat. Curious, she leaned forward, holding both Maisie’s hands to limit her reach.
‘Ah-a, don’t you touch either,’ Fitz called over. ‘That’s there for explanatory reasons. For my eyes only.’
Erin nodded as if she understood, but she didn’t. She wiped her brow, thinking she should be at home tackling the never-ending list of things to do. The washing pile would talk to her if it could. Who knew a baby could create so much laundry? Who knew that looking after one small person could fill her day like it did, exhaust her like it did? Yet there she was, watching Fitz pour two mugs of stewed tea from a pot, exhausted.
‘Right,’ Fitz sat opposite. ‘What’s up?’
‘My mother-in-law is a lunatic,’ she said.
‘No. No, she’s not.’ Fitz laughed.
‘You’re right but she hates me.’
‘Well, that’s a different thing altogether. And I thought things had settled with her since Maisie was born?’
‘They have, but … She adores Maisie, adores Dom but she’s still a bit off with me.’
‘Having met Sophie, I think she’d be like that with anyone she sees as taking her son away from her. Or maybe it’s because she had to wait such a long time for children – how old was she when she had Dom, forty? And she sees you, Miss Fertile, pregnant and married in months.’
Erin flushed, rubbed her neck with her hand. ‘I just need to find a way to talk to Dom about stuff. It’s one of the reasons I came to see you.’
Her father’s forehead creased.
‘For example, he’s gambling,’ she blurted. ‘Only small stuff but he doesn’t tell me.’
Erin thought Fitz looked as if he had a sudden headache brewing. ‘Poker games with his mates and bets in bookies, mostly. Stupid arse leaves the stubs in his trousers. It’s just a worry.’
‘Have you asked him about it?’
‘He waffles.’ She hesitated. ‘I suppose some might call it lies.’
Fitz sighed, sat back in his chair.
‘Then again, I don’t tell the truth when he asks me if I’m alright, whether I’m coping, when he senses I might not be. I don’t tell him when my stomach coils in on itself. Seems that despite the fact we love the bones of one another and laugh together every single day, we both have stuff we … we just don’t seem willing or able to talk about.’
‘Dad?’ Erin’s eyes filled at the edges. ‘We love being together. We’re meant to be together. Just sometimes, we’re not great at actually talking.’ She bounced a restless Maisie on her knee. ‘So, like I said when I called – that leather book you gave us when we got married – how does it actually work?’
‘In only fourteen months since the wedding,’ Dom raised a glass to her across the table, ‘we’re new parents, and I’m newly qualified.’ He sipped from his glass. ‘You not drinking?’ he asked as he began to slice into the roast chicken she’d prepared.
‘Tummy’s a bit upset,’ she said.
‘Oh.’ He put down his cutlery. ‘You alright?’
‘Yes, yes, I’m fine, probably Fitz’s pâté sandwich.’ She made a face and then instantly smiled. ‘I didn’t tell you – Maisie tried to stand up today! I had her down on the floor and one moment she was there, grabbing my legs and the next she was pulling herself up! Fitz loved it.’
‘Sometimes,’ Dom’s eyes were wistful, ‘sometimes, I wish I could stay at home all day and just watch her.’
Erin sliced her meat and nibbled on a piece. ‘No, you don’t,’ she said. ‘You’d last a day of shitty nappies and baby talk before you went scrambling back to the office for some peace.’
‘I do know what you do for her, you know. I do know that there’ll come a day when maybe you want more.’
Erin stared at the vegetables on her plate. She should eat the broccoli. ‘Tell me about work,’ she said. ‘What’s going on in the Carter Empire?’
‘My father’s empire is doing great and his one and only son and heir is being made to work from the bottom up.’ He waved a knife. ‘I don’t mind. It’s the right thing but there’re moments where …’ Dom hesitated. ‘Oh, I don’t know. It’s as if I’m penalised for being his son.’
‘By him or others?’ Erin asked.
‘Gah,’ he said. ‘It’s nothing. At least nothing I shouldn’t expect. I am his son and I am only there because of that.’
‘You’re there because you got a first in Architecture after studying for six years, Dom.’
‘Yeah, along with the hundreds of other applicants for entry-level jobs.’ His eyes widened. ‘I’m there because I’m his son and everyone, including me, knows that.’
Erin stood and came to sit on his lap. ‘If anyone can make it work, you can.’
‘Mrs Carter, if you’re trying to seduce me, could you please wait until I’ve eaten?’
‘I’m on my way to get a soft drink, actually, need the bubbles …’ She traced the line of his five o’clock shadow with her fingertips before grazing his lips with hers. ‘And it could be worse,’ she said before heading to the fridge.
‘Oh yeah?’ he asked, cutlery in hand again.
‘You could be working for your mother,’ she grinned as her eyes scanned the inside shelves and she heard him laugh loudly as she popped open a can of lemonade.
Dom’s snore, aided by the bottle of red which he’d got from a grateful client and had almost finished, prompted her out of bed. Tying her robe around herself, she slid her feet into slippers and first checked on Maisie.
Running her fingers along the top of the radiator, she made sure it was hot. There was a heavy frost outside, the threat of snow and Maisie hated being cold; she was the only baby that Erin had ever seen shiver. Leaning into the cot, she felt her forehead briefly and Maisie stirred, pursing her bud lips in her sleep. Not for the first time, Erin stayed a minute staring at the child’s features. Her pale skin was flawless, velvet to the touch. A hint of strawberry could be seen in her straight golden hair, but only in certain lights. As Erin pressed a few strands between her thumb and fingers, marvelled at its softness, then traced the arch of her daughter’s brow with the slightest of touches, she convinced herself that somehow, she and Dom could stay this lucky.
In the living room, she wrapped herself up in a blanket on the sofa and took the leather book from the changing bag. Remembering what Fitz had said, and without thinking about it too much, Erin began to write.
18th January 1998
My darling Dom,
I can’t sleep, so I thought I might as well do this! Fitz says it works; that it helps people focus on exactly what they want to say without any fluff.
I’m not sure what to do, how to do it, other than I start things by being first. And the first thing I need to say is that I love you. All of you, despite the fact that you’re snoring away in bed after drinking wine I can’t drink and I’m here awake again.
Yep. Sleepless nights, insomnia again. For about another six months.
I bet you’re scratching your head now. I can see you; your face is wrinkled, you’re trying to work out what the hell I’m saying and how the hell you should respond and whether I expect you to reply. Do I really expect you to write back? Well, yes – I’m going to leave this book on the hall table. I’ll stick a big post-it with your name and instructions on the mirror above, so you’ll see it first thing in the morning, when you’re up with the birds and I’m finally asleep. Read Fitz’s card again – it’s just on the inside flap and it explains what this is about. And when you write back, please be honest. Be brutal. No, don’t be brutal, I’m not sure I could take it. I’ll take honest though.
And just because honesty is what this is about. Here it is, the fluff-free version, written down because I’m not sure your poker face is good enough to hide your feelings and I can’t bear to see if I’m right:
I’m pregnant again. Over three months, I reckon. It must have happened during that time I was ill in October, probably didn’t keep the pill down for a few days. I’ve only just found out because, since Maisie, it’s quite normal for me to miss a period. Or two. But not three …
I love you with all the love in my heart but according to Fitz I’m supposed to end anything I write with a reason why, so …
I love you because you’re a brilliant father and I hope that being a father again won’t faze you. And I love you because you iron my jeans, and because you run a bath for me when I’m tired and because I heard you apologise to a snail yesterday when you accidentally stood on it.
19th January 1998
This is just the second of our many un-planned plans. You ARE the most beautiful woman in the world. And you’re mine and I’m yours and we’ll work it out. We will.
Love you mightily,
THEN – April 1998
‘Tea with your mother. Alone. Can’t you take the day off?’
‘I’m serious. You won’t be there. Your dad won’t be there. The two of you will be huddled by a desk probably both worrying about who’s killed who.’ Erin stopped folding the laundry. ‘What if we have an argument, I mean—’
‘Erin, you’re overthinking it. Stop. Mum’s just asking you and Maisie over for a cup of tea and a slab of Teletubbies cake for Maisie’s birthday. That’s it.’
‘She has a Teletubbies cake?’
‘Not only,’ Dom stood and took his jacket from the back of his chair, ‘has she got one. She made the cake.’
Erin closed her eyes, felt his gentle kiss on her lips. ‘Shit, I’m going to have to go, aren’t I?’ she sighed, knowing that there was no way out.
‘You are, and who knows, you might enjoy yourself.’ He waved a backward wave.
‘I’d rather pull my toenails off with pliers!’ she called after him. ‘I’d rather poke my eyes out with cocktail sticks!’ she yelled louder.
‘Give her a kiss for me!’ he called back and moments after Erin heard the sound of the front door close, she heard the sound of Maisie’s voice. She flicked the kettle on to heat her bottle. ‘I’d rather have surgery with no anaesthetic,’ she said aloud to no one before walking down the hallway and peering around Maisie’s door.
‘Good morning, birthday girl!’
Maisie stood at the edge of the cot, her arms already in the air, and when Erin picked her up, she balanced her on the edge of her growing bump and danced around the room singing ‘Happy Birthday’. She grabbed Maisie’s favourite furry toy, an elephant with one ear and, heading back to the kitchen, she cooed the words ‘Yes! I’d rather have a real elephant stand on my toe, yes, I would!’
Maisie chuckled, and Erin felt a couple of well-placed kicks just above her bladder. In the kitchen, she placed Maisie’s bottle in a jug of boiling water and made a coffee she knew she’d only drink half of.
‘What shall we do today?’ she whispered into her daughter’s tiny ear. ‘Shall we go and eat special cake with Nanny?’ Maisie began to jump in her arms. ‘Okay, okay, I’m outvoted, we’ll go and eat cake with Nanny. Mummy would rather eat raw offal but hey, we’ll go anyway, eh?’
Erin sipped tea from a china cup and placed it back on a matching saucer on the dining table that Dom would have had so many Sunday dinners at when growing up. She found it easy to picture him there; a boy tall for his age, shy, with hair combed to one side, and short trousers. Looking around the room, at the mass of heavy brocade curtains, the wood store cupboard beside the imposing fireplace, she could see the places that he and Lydia might have played hide and seek as children. It was a grand room, in a grand four-storey Victorian villa, nothing like Fitz’s place.
‘It’s really warm for April, don’t you think?’
Erin nodded politely, pushing aside all thoughts of the previous week’s relentless rain and the fact she’d worn a woollen sweater this morning. She fixed her eyes on Maisie who crawled around her feet.
Sophie’s head shook suddenly. ‘Though you must know I didn’t ask you here to talk about the weather.’
Erin remained silent.
‘I owe you an apology,’ Sophie said, her eyes moving from the child to Erin. ‘I was most unfair to you when I met you first … and … for a while afterwards.’
‘“She’s shameless”,’ Erin quoted, as she helped herself to a purple slice of Tinky-Winky’s hand. It was probably a good idea to eat, probably a good idea to stop herself talking.
‘You heard that?’ Her mother-in-law’s cheeks blushed puce. ‘I was out of order and I was wrong. I’m sorry.’
‘No, Erin, let me say this. I was afraid,’ Sophie said, reaching down and plucking Maisie from where she’d crawled under the table. She bounced her gently on her knee. ‘I thought I’d lose Dom and that you and he wouldn’t last, that you were … well … it doesn’t matter. We sometimes act stupidly when we’re afraid, don’t you think?’
Erin wasn’t sure. She could count the times on one hand where she thought she’d really acted stupidly but couldn’t begin to count the far too many times when she’d been afraid. She inhaled deeply. Sophie was apologising, and not just a quick ‘I’m sorry’. Sophie was apologising in style, and immediately Erin felt guilty.
‘Sophie,’ she eyeballed her. ‘Don’t give it another thought. Please. It feels like it’s already a long time ago.’
‘I even thought that she wasn’t his …’ Sophie hugged Maisie and the child grimaced. ‘But you only have to look at her …’ She was doing exactly that, staring at Maisie who had Dom’s walnut brown eyes, his fair hair, rangy limbs and already, his calm nature. ‘Do you think you can forgive me?’ Sophie handed over Maisie, who was stretching her arms in Erin’s direction, cooing an ‘M’ sound that Erin hoped would grow into ‘Mama’.
‘Of course, I—’ She had been twenty minutes away from her planned exit when the apology had started. And now, it wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate her mother-in-law’s words, far from it, it meant a huge amount to her, but, it was Maisie’s first birthday and she and Dom had bought their own cake, had planned a silly blow-out-the-single-candle ceremony.
‘Gerard, he’s been telling me for ages I should just come out with it and talk to you and …’ Sophie scooped some crumbs from the table into her hand. ‘Have you had enough to eat, Erin? What about Maisie?’
Erin watched her scan the table, laden with enough sandwiches to feed a mid-size family for a week. Some part of her was touched at the effort Sophie had gone to. ‘We’ve had plenty, thank you,’ she replied.
‘Why don’t you take some of these and some cake for Dom and you later? Saves you cooking?’ Without waiting for a reply, Sophie left the room, calling back that she’d just wrap them up for her. Erin kissed Maisie’s cheek and began to do it repeatedly as the child giggled, then she caught Sophie watching from the doorway, a roll of tin foil in her hands. ‘She’s a total delight you know,’ she said. ‘A total delight.’
Erin grinned. She was. She placed Maisie on the floor next to her bag, kept one eye on her as she helped Sophie wrap the sandwiches. Whether she liked it or not, she was stuck here for a while with her new best friend and she and Dom were having soggy egg butties and Tinky-Winky’s lower body for supper.
‘Wow,’ Dom looked up from his position lying, stomach down, on the floor.
‘I know, right?’
‘Wow,’ he repeated. ‘I don’t ever remember Mum saying she was sorry.’
‘Well, she seemed to mean it, so …’ They both looked at Maisie next to them. In the last few weeks, she had been trying to walk and was managing to find her way around the room by clutching the edges of furniture. When she reached Dom, she smiled and sat down on him heavily. The sounds made Erin smile – first the high-pitched chuckle of Maisie followed by a breathless squeal and then Dom’s deeper laugh as he took hold of her and tickled her. ‘I’m going to GET you!’ he crawled on all fours as she scrambled away, giggling. It was contagious, and she was laughing to herself as she went to fetch the cake.
Minutes later, she sang the length of the hallway. ‘Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you!’ She peered, wide-eyed, around the door. ‘Happy birthday, our Maisie!’ Bending down to where Maisie was sat on Dom’s stomach, she held the cake she’d bought in front of her daughter’s face. ‘Blow, darling, look Daddy will show you. Blow!’ Dom obliged by pursing his lips and blowing gently. When Maisie followed suit and tried without success, both of them helped. ‘Happy birthday to you!’ she sang the final line just as her daughter put her fist in the cake.
‘That’s right, darling, you tell her,’ Dom said as he sat up and looked sideways at Erin. ‘Mummy should never sing, should she?’
Erin licked some chocolate icing from a finger. ‘What’s wrong with Mummy singing?’
Maisie laughed and suddenly realising it was chocolate on her own hand, she began to lick it too.
‘Yum, yum,’ Dom pretended to chase her. ‘Daddy wants some!’
More squeals from them left Erin holding the plate of cake. ‘There’s nothing wrong with my singing,’ she yelled above them both.
When bedtime came, Erin listened from the hallway as Dom began to read Maisie’s favourite picture book one more time. While he sounded out the phonics for the words and accompanied each farmyard animal with a suitable noise, Erin folded linen into the airing cupboard. Smiling at his braying donkey, she entered the bedroom, lowered herself down beside them on the large beanbag. And amidst the farmyard sounds, Maisie’s eyes began to droop.
‘She’s tired,’ Erin whispered. ‘She didn’t have a nap today.’
‘Me neither,’ Dom said, his eyes closing.
She grabbed his hand and let it lie on her stomach as she felt one of the babies move and wondered yet again how they’d stack three children into one room. ‘You ever get afraid?’ she asked Dom suddenly, replaying her conversation with Sophie in her head.
‘Afraid?’ He said the word as if it weren’t in his vocabulary.
‘Yes, scared, afraid.’ She remembered the same time last year being overcome with worry just before giving birth.
‘Not since I was a kid. Didn’t like the dark much. Ghoulies and ghosties.’
‘You’ve never felt frightened as an adult, not at all? Not even when the scan showed two babies?’
‘Nope,’ he confirmed, turning towards her, a sleeping Maisie crooked under his right arm. ‘Only when I hear you sing. That scares me.’ He shuddered.
She snuggled against him.
Ghoulies and ghosties and things that might possibly bump in the night had never bothered her. Three children. Five of them in a two-bedroom flat. One income. They all sort of scared her.
2nd April 1998
My darling Dom,
Here’s the thing.
My mother died when I was only eighteen. I can’t explain how devastated I was, more at having to watch her die slowly, than the fact that I lost her. When she passed, I felt relief and then huge shame that I felt relieved. And her death changed me.
And since then I’ve never been able to take a single thing for granted.
You and I are so alike in what we both want from life, but so different when it comes to believing we can get it. I’m a worry wart and wanted to say to you earlier, wanted to ask you (again) how we’re going to manage with three children on your income with so little space? I said nothing, I couldn’t, but I can’t shake it from my head, which is how I find myself in here.
Dom, I love you because of your absolute certainty that nothing can touch us. You believe that love will make everything alright and your faith in that makes me believe it too.
P.S. And what’s wrong with my singing? It sounds perfectly fine in my head.
3rd April 1998
Erin, my love,
What’s the problem?
Old Mother Hubbard did it, didn’t she?!! Wait it wasn’t her – was it some ‘old woman who lived in a shoe’? Who cares? We’ll stack them, top and tail them. We’ll be fine.
Is this the part where I have to write down why I love you?
I love you because you want me to write to you when we live together, because when I’ve finished writing, you want me to put the book away in the hall table where ‘it will live’ apparently, and then I have to put your name on a post-it, place it on the mirror above, so you know I’ve written to you.
One day, maybe all, or at least some of that, might make sense.
And I love you because you know you’re a crap singer and you do it out loud anyway.
NOW – 3rd June 2017
From The Book of Love:
‘Erin, I love you because even when you’re afraid, you’re brave.’
She should have been a photographer.
I’m looking at a spread of her images left on the kitchen table. They’re so good – clean lines, perfect colours, and a natural knack to frame her subjects. There’s a great one of me flying a phoenix-shaped kite, and several more of our gang, all pulling faces, at the pub quiz night. A few years ago, Erin was never without a camera – when did that stop?
I find myself studying an old picture of Maisie that’s stuck on the fridge, sharing a magnet with the menu for the local Chinese take-away. She’s on her feet, chubby legs trembling, and using the sofa to move herself along. The grin on her face is pure joy. I remember, despite being out of shot, being there behind the baby, arms stretched out waiting to catch her if she fell. I blow her a kiss before leaving the house.
Outside the front door the rain has stopped. The temperature has risen and there’s a sweaty haze hovering above wet ground. Lydia’s house is a short walk from Valentine’s Way, but I take the longer route, up Hawthorn Avenue. Outside number 27, I stop, lean up against one of the stone pillars at the entrance. They’re new. And the front garden’s different; denser, with loads more scruffy shrubbery that makes me want to get in there with some secateurs. Someone has planted ivy that’s grown wild around the front bay window of the ground-floor flat. It looks like shit; messy, unkempt and it saddens me.
Behind that window was once our living room and behind it, in the middle of the flat, was Maisie’s bedroom. It was there that Erin first told me how she felt afraid and I told her she, we, had nothing to fear.
I really believed back then that nothing could touch us.
It was there on the 10th May 1998 that I learned she was right and I was so very wrong …
The air in the flat is tight. I grasp the brass hook handles and pull the sash window in the living room until it raises its standard three inches. There’s no fresh burst of outside air but better to leave it open, I think. There won’t be any three-inch high burglars getting in tonight.
Erin’s asleep, has been for hours. She’s exhausted and the doctor has given her something mild to help her sleep. I debate a brandy. Sleep for me feels impossible – eyes will be closed with my mind still pumping, going over and over stuff. Pouring a half glass, I’m already regretting it at the first sip, regretting what I’ve become. I swallow it in two gulps, look around and check the plugs, like I always do, before looking in on Maisie and going to bed.
Maisie’s room, next to the living room, is even more stuffy and still and I open the window, pulling aside the heavy curtain Erin insists on having to try to convince our thirteen-month-old daughter it’s night time. She’s too clever though, knows she’s being duped and we end up listening to her babbling in the room next to us for at least an hour after bedtime every night. Tonight, she’s kicked the sheet off and has bundled herself into the furthest corner of the cot, her face rooted into the crumpled cotton and her left arm slung over Elephant.
I move her, turn her over, Erin’s maternal words of warning whispering in my ear. ‘She shouldn’t sleep on her tummy,’ something my own mother had always insisted Erin was wrong about. And as my hands touch her, as my fingers grasp my baby, my flesh and blood, I know immediately. She’s so cold; my first thought is that there’s no coming back from this. As I turn her over, even in the moonlight I can see her face is mottled blue.
One second: she’s on the floor and I try to breathe life into her cold lips.
Two seconds: I listen for the sound of her fluttery heartbeat in her silent chest.
Six seconds: She’s in my arms and I’m in the living room, the phone in my hand. The voice answering my call for an ambulance is calm and tells me the paramedics are on their way.
Ten seconds: I open the airing cupboard in the hallway, pull out the first thing I see, a coloured crochet blanket, try to wrap her in it, the phone held in the crook of my shoulder and ear.
‘She’s so cold,’ I say to the woman on the end of the phone, my instinct already telling me her shift will end in tears. My eyes are on the doorway to our bedroom at the end of the corridor, the bedroom where Erin’s sleeping.
Fifteen seconds: Inside I’m screaming, ‘Erin! Wake up!’ But the cries stay put. I’m pacing with Maisie swaddled in my arms. I whisper to her not to worry. I tell her I love her. I ask her not to leave us. Please. Maisie. Please. Don’t leave us.
I stop being aware of time when there’s a banging on the front door and suddenly three people are all barking orders at one another trying to resuscitate our first child on a blanket on the living room floor. Our bedroom door opens.
Then Erin is howling, a sound I will never forget. She’s clutching her stomach, swollen with twins, with one hand, scrambling to grab hold of Maisie with the other. She’s on the floor, just repeating, ‘No, no, no’ on a loop. ‘DO something,’ she screeches at no one in particular, before folding in half. I get down on the floor, squeeze my eyes shut, grasp her so she can’t move, knowing that if I let her go, she will simply break.
I quicken my pace to Lydia’s. It’s still bright out, despite a sky laden with lilac, rain-heavy clouds. Cars, their lights on low, drive by and splash me but I’m oblivious, as I throw my head back and look to the heavens. ‘Life,’ I tell Maisie, ‘is about choices. Some we regret. Some we’re proud of, and some will plague us forever.’
THEN – May 1998
Erin couldn’t breathe. From somewhere beneath her mouth, beneath her neck, she felt as if she was being kicked. Maybe she was dreaming. Maybe she was dreaming about being mugged.
Her babies were telling her to find air. She opened her mouth, and instead of the gulp she’d expected, she heard herself cry out. Maisie.
She began to rock. Forwards. Back. Forwards. Back.
What was she doing on the living room floor? Who were all these people? How did she get there?
Dom was holding her. But he was gripping her too tight, so she began to hit him. Hard.
Next to them, there was a man huddled, bending over something. She wanted to pull away from Dom, let her eyes land on the sight she knew she’d already seen; to let herself look at it from further back so she could talk herself through it. Her head moved slowly left to right. No.
No, no, no, no.
One two, buckle my shoe. Three four, knock on the door.
There was someone knocking on the door. And there was a strange woman letting him in. Erin counted. One, two, three, four. There were now four strangers in her living room, all dressed in black trousers and white shirts, all of them bent over something, someone. She began to wail, heard the sounds coming from herself and thought there must be some mistake. Even when she held her mother’s hand as she had taken her last breath, Erin had been silent. She wasn’t a screamer. Erin wept into Dom’s chest and felt afraid, really fearful, that she would now, after this night, always be a screamer.
She could see it unfold. Dom would hand her a cup of tea and she might scream.
He might try to hold her, and she might scream.
Dom would whisper something hopeful, something kind and she might scream.
She forced herself away from him, crawled along the floor towards the huddle and pushed her way through. Maisie was lying on the floor on her blanket, the one Erin’s own mother had crocheted so many years ago. A stranger’s hand gripped her, tried to stop her getting to her baby. ‘You’re wrong!’ Erin growled, a feral sound. ‘Leave her alone!’
Gathering her baby up in her arms, she whispered to her. ‘Everything will be alright. Mummy’s here. Everything will be alright, won’t it, Daddy?’ She looked to where she’d left Dom, who sat on his haunches. When her eyes found his, Erin saw something she didn’t recognise, as her memory pulled a line she’d written to him once, ‘I love your absolute certainty that nothing can touch us.’
She cradled their child, pulled the blanket tight around her. Maisie loved to be swaddled, and she was so cold. Erin kissed her lips, looked at a woman who was sitting next to her, also crouched down on her knees. The woman wiped her eyes with the back of her gloved hand. ‘She gets cold,’ Erin told her. ‘And she loves to be warm. She gets cold,’ she repeated. And as Erin began to rock again, silent, slow tears traced a path down her face. She kissed her baby as she felt another one move inside her. ‘Don’t worry, darling, Mummy will make it better.’ Running a hand over her hair, her fine, beautiful hair, she felt the back of Maisie’s neck. Cold. She rubbed the folds of her skin underneath her hairline and moved her up onto her shoulder. ‘She likes this,’ Erin told the woman as she moved her hand in slow circles on Maisie’s back.
Dom was suddenly in front of her. ‘Shall I take her?’ he whispered.
Erin’s head shook. ‘No.’
She needed time. These people had to understand that she and her baby needed time. She felt Dom’s hand on hers as she moved both over Maisie. ‘We just need to hold her. Everything’s going to be okay, sweetheart.’ Erin wasn’t sure if she was talking to Maisie or to Dom.
They stayed there a few minutes, rubbing their baby’s back until she became aware that the strangers in her home had moved. They were no longer huddled. Things that had lain on the floor had been packed into tight bags and slung over their shoulders. Some of them had left. Only two remained; the woman who had been sitting next to her and a man, tall with a tightly cut red beard. ‘Look, Maisie,’ she whispered in her ear. ‘Pirate!’
Erin sat back on the floor, still holding Maisie upright on her shoulder. She felt the front of the sofa support her and she sighed. Turning Maisie over, she cradled her in her arms once again. Erin touched her lips with her fingertip, opened them slightly, waited for that fluttery, quivery breath that Maisie would always do. And then she held her own.
In that moment, Erin figured if she held it for long enough, she too might just stop breathing. It couldn’t be that hard, surely. She saw Dom’s lips move. He was breathing. Dom. Her Dom. He reached forward and took Maisie in his arms. Peas in a pod. And breath burst from her, against her will. Gasping, she quickly held it again. Maisie was in Dom’s arms now.
As he stood and the woman took Maisie from him, Erin closed her eyes. She felt a kick in her stomach. Two kicks. Two babies. Needing their mummy. Again, she blurted the breath she’d held, this time, heard it exit her in a roar. And then, her eyes still closed as she felt Dom take her in his arms, she screamed again and beat his chest with her fists until she had no more fight.
And in her mind, she saw again how life might happen.
Someone, anyone, maybe her friend Lydia, would hand her a cup of tea and she would scream.
Someone, anyone, maybe her friend Hannah, would try to hold her and she would scream and hit and thump.
Someone, anyone, would just say something kind and the sound would come.
Forever? She wondered as Dom placed both their hands on her stomach.
‘Breathe,’ he whispered. ‘You have to breathe. We need you.’
And Erin did as she was told. In and out, she felt her lungs inflate and deflate.
And when she opened her eyes, Maisie was still there in the stranger’s arms. Wrapped up against the cold in her blanket. Dom had stilled next to her. Without him looking at her, she felt his arm tighten around her and she turned her head towards him.
And Erin, who already knew what fear could do, who already knew what loss could do, now feared that alongside Maisie, her husband’s blind faith in life being wonderful had also died that night.
20th May 1998
Talk to me.
Write to me.
I know you’re afraid and I know now there’s reason to be afraid in life, but together, we can get through it, even if we’re on our knees.
I love you because there’s a strength in you still. I see it when you take vitamins for our other babies, when you shush them gently with your hand through your stomach.
I love you because you will make certain those babies know their sister. I’m sure of it.
I love you because loving you is the only other thing I’m sure of right now.
THEN – February 1999
‘You need to look after your wife, Dominic.’
Erin listened behind the door to her kitchen. Her mother-in-law speaking up for her still felt a little odd and her hand rested on her chest.
‘We need to look after each other,’ was Dom’s reply.
Erin placed her forehead on the pine architrave. He was, of course, right but where and how to begin? She moved to push the door in front of her but paused at Sophie’s next words.
‘She loves you. You love her. You’re the one who tells me that it doesn’t have to be any more complicated. Look, I’m sorry …’ Erin imagined her looking at her watch. ‘But I’ve got to meet your dad at the club for lunch. I’m assuming you don’t want to join us?’
Dom laughed. ‘Er, no, ta, we’re going for a walk down by the river.’
She loves you. You love her. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated.
Erin’s eyes rested on a black and white image hanging on the wall of the hallway to her left – a picture Hannah had taken of her and Dom on their wedding day – one of those snapped when they weren’t looking. Both of them in profile, she was laughing at something Dom had just said. She could never remember what it was, but the slight tilt of her head backwards said so much more than that she’d just listened to something funny. It said she’d heard something funny from someone she loved. And his eyes, his eyes gazed at her as if he couldn’t believe he’d made this woman whom he loved, laugh like that. Wonder, awe in each other … She closed her own eyes for one brief moment.
Opening them meant she would either push the kitchen door open or opt to look further left. Left a little, where just beyond the wedding frame hung a small collage of photos of the children. A few pictures Dom had taken of their beautiful twins, Rachel and Jude, now almost eight months old, already making each other laugh. In the centre, just one of Maisie on her first birthday, covered in chocolate cake, only a month before they lost her. Erin had no need to actually look. The grinning images of her three children were burned on her brain. She swallowed hard and entered the kitchen. Crossing the porcelain tiles she’d mopped an hour earlier, she hugged her mother-in-law tight.
‘Oh,’ Sophie said, obviously puzzled at the embrace. ‘What was that for?’
Erin shrugged. ‘Just thank you.’ Of all the people who had helped when Maisie died, Sophie was the biggest surprise. Overnight her mother-in-law had seemed to realise that losing a child to sudden infant death syndrome while pregnant with twins was too much for any soul.
Erin pulled her padded coat from the back of the kitchen chair. ‘I’m ready if you are?’ she said to Dom checking the buckles on the twins’ pushchair. Despite the sunshine and clear blue sky outside, both babies were cocooned against the cold. She touched Jude’s face. He, unlike his sister, was fighting sleep.
‘He’ll nod off once we start moving.’ Dom put his jacket on, wrapped a scarf twice round his neck before ushering his mother towards their front door.
‘Bye, Erin!’ Sophie called back. ‘Give them a kiss from me when they’re up!’
‘See you!’ Erin replied as she angled them through the awkward kitchen doorway, pushing the pushchair along the narrow hallway.
Dom stepped outside and took over. ‘Daddy will drive,’ he said as she closed the door behind them.
Erin pulled the collar of her coat high, pressed her gloves tight between each of her fingers. It was her favourite sort of day; a crisp, cloudless sky, cold, but cold you could wrap up against. She leaned into the pram one more time and tugged the children’s blankets right up to their mouths, before sinking her gloved hands deep into her coat pockets.
Together she and Dom walked the length of Hawkins Avenue, silent, not needing to talk. They turned into Percival Way, a long, wide, tree-lined road, that bypassed the mall and the station, towards the river. They walked, crunching through iced leaves from the aging birch trees, crisp and brittle on the ground. Erin could see Jude was finally asleep.
‘You were listening at the door, weren’t you?’ Dom, his breath misting, was first to speak.
Erin said nothing.
She loves you. You love her.
‘We need to look after each other, apparently,’ he continued.
‘Actually,’ Erin smiled. ‘I think what your mother said is that you need to look after me. I think she realises you’re already well looked after.’
‘Do you love me?’ she blurted.
‘Completely. Mightily.’ His ungloved knuckles whitened as he gripped the bars of the pram and she reached across for his hand as he stopped walking.
‘And I love you.’
‘So, we move on, don’t dwell on things,’ he said, his head making tiny side to side movements. ‘We have each other. We have two more children.’
But no Maisie … She nodded.
‘While you were in the loo, Mum was suggesting we focus on what it was like before.’
It had been such a short time, just nine months, nothing at all – too soon to imagine laughter, to try and recreate the ‘before’.
‘So,’ he said. ‘Is she right? Any idea on how we can inject some fun into our lives?’
Erin began to walk again. He was talking about sex. She did want to talk; she wanted to talk like they used to so very much, but not about sex. ‘You mean sex?’ Despite herself, she heard herself say it aloud.
‘Well, that and any other fun stuff.’
‘I had twins, that’s two babies one after the other. My nether regions are like the Grand Canyon. If you go anywhere near them all you’ll get is a loud echo.’
Dom smiled. ‘I doubt that.’
‘I know we have to, but I just can’t even think about it … can we talk about something else?’
Dom following one pace behind, raised his eyebrows. She saw that he didn’t even try to hide his disappointment. ‘You choose,’ he shrugged.
‘I think right now we need sleep more than sex,’ she said. Neither of them had slept well since Maisie died, and even worse since the twins were born.
‘Maybe.’ Dom took a small water bottle from the changing bag and drank from it.
‘And maybe we need to open up to each other more, Dom.’
He laughed, tightened the cap on the bottle again. ‘I’m not too great on the feelings thing, Erin – you know that.’
‘So, imagine you’re writing something in the book for me,’ she said. ‘Imagine you have to write how you’re feeling today, what would you say?’
He raised his hands up and blocked his ears. ‘Argh!’
Gently, she moved his hands down. ‘Tell you what, I’ll ask you questions and you reply.’
‘Is that the time?’ he nudged his head in the direction they’d just come from and grinned. ‘Shouldn’t we head back?’
‘Two questions,’ he kept walking towards the river.
Erin tried to match his new pace. ‘Right. What are you finding hard to tell me right now?’ She noticed a deep frown settle as he seemed to wrestle with the question.
‘I’m not sure,’ he hesitated.
‘Try harder,’ she pressed. ‘Pretend I’m not here – I’m never going to hear your answer.’
He thought about it a moment. ‘In that case, I’m feeling frustrated.’
Erin said nothing. Sex again …
‘I miss sex. I miss feeling that close to you. I feel tense and I know I’m an irritable bastard,’ he continued.
Erin didn’t disagree.
‘Sometimes,’ he said. ‘I’m completely confused by how much I love you and the kids, yet I still feel … I feel almost trapped.’
Erin almost waved a white flag there and then. That word ‘trapped’. Stuck. Caught. Imprisoned. Ensnared. It played to every insecurity she had ever felt since first peeing on a stick years ago – since they both realised they’d unwittingly hitched their wagons to one another.
‘You did ask,’ he said.
She glanced in the pram. Both children were asleep, though not for long. Jude didn’t seem to nap at all during the day and when he woke, he always woke Rachel who would probably, given the chance, sleep for hours.
‘Erin?’ From his expression, she could tell Dom was already regretting speaking. ‘This is why I hate talking about shit,’ he confirmed. ‘I want you.’ He stopped walking and reached for her gloved hand. ‘You. You’re the one. Maybe I’m wrong but I think the good life we both want for us and the kids – it’ll follow. It will still come.’
‘There was a young woman called Er-in,’ Erin’s eyes locked on his.
‘Limericks? Now with the Limericks?’ He laughed quietly.
She made a face, rolling her eyes inwards. Her ability to make up silly rhymes on the hop had always made him smile.
‘Who was struck on the head by a bin.’
His head was shaking.
‘The rubbish tipped out, it was flying about,’
She hesitated. ‘And a nappy got stuck to her chin!’
‘Nope, not one of your best ones.’
‘There was a young man called Dom,’ Erin was walking ahead of him.
‘Who so wished he’d been christened Tom,
‘Because Toms have more fun, from problems they run,
‘And Toms go through life with aplomb …’
‘Oh, that’s good,’ he nodded. ‘That one’s really good.’
She turned around, linked her arm with his and, with the river almost in touching distance, planted one foot firmly in front of the other and matched his pace.
There was a young couple called Carter,
Who were madly in love as a starter,
But tragedy struck, and their life, it seemed stuck,
Split into before and then after …
Sitting on a cold bench at the river, Erin realised when her son stretched an arm out and laughed out loud at a passing family of swans, that the world could still make her smile. She realised when she caught her husband looking at her – with the same look in his eyes that had been captured in the wedding photo in the hall – that his love carried on regardless of loss.
‘Please,’ Dom said. ‘Don’t think too much about what I said. It’s what happens when you push me to talk. I talk complete crap.’
Erin leaned across Jude and kissed Dom gently on the lips.
When Jude almost leapt out of her arms at the sound of a boat, she allowed herself to really believe he would grow up, and that he might have a love of sailing. When someone nearby played a radio and a piece of music she and Dom both recognised had them humming aloud, Erin allowed herself to lock eyes with her husband; to really see him, as if for the first time, again. And when Rachel giggled as Dom made silly noises at her, Erin gripped Jude tight, closed her eyes and immersed herself in the sounds of love and life.
4th February 1999
Today was so lovely, not so much like it used to be as like it can and will be.
Please be patient with me. I know we both need sex but right now I can’t. Not because I don’t want to but because I’m afraid it won’t be like before and I’m scared shitless of getting pregnant again.
You don’t have to write here if you don’t want to, but Fitz is right about these pages, for me anyway … I find it easier to say stuff here, things that I hold back from saying when I’m with you. Sometimes, when we’re face to face, I’m so afraid of letting you down and other times, I’m just not brave enough to say things out loud. If things are said aloud, they’re so much more real, aren’t they? Like what you said today …
For now, I’m just trying to hang on to what matters. You and the twins. Fitz, family. But I feel as if I’m on top of a mountain trying to breathe. My lungs are tight, I can’t call out. I suppose it’s my own version of feeling ‘trapped’.
Be patient? I’m trying.
I love you because I know when you’ve read this that you’ll hear me.
5th February 1999
I will wait as long as I have to. I will do whatever it takes. But please don’t ask me to write shit down. I’m shit at writing shit down.
And I hurt too.
That’s all I can say here. I hurt too.
I love you mightily,
6th February 1999
You’re not that shit at writing things down. Those few lines say a lot.
All my love,
7th February 1999
To my super-talented wife,
Unlike you, this took me HOURS!
‘There was a young woman called Erin
When I met her the room had no air-in
She danced like a tree, I knew we would be,
Together through thick and through thin.’
I think from now on for Limerick purposes you should be called Pam and I should be called Steve?? Rhyming would be so much easier!
I love you.
Because you’re funny and you make me laugh. Because you look sexy in heels and because you always get the spiders out of the bath.
I love you because you put a triangle of Toblerone in my suit pocket yesterday.
NOW – 3rd June 2017
From The Book of Love:
“Fuck-it, who cares why, Erin? I love you just because I do.”
It’s Lydia’s party and I’m standing with a man and woman I don’t know who are having an animated discussion about Brexit. He’s ignoring me and nodding sagely as she speaks. She’s paying no attention to me either, only interested in jabbing the air with her forefinger to make her point. I look around the room – a large front-to-back ground floor of a Victorian villa, it’s packed with people, all deciding they’d rather not risk rain outside.
The Brexit duo and I are in the exact spot Lydia and Nigel have their pine tree in December. Except for last year. Last Christmas Lydia understandably went all Grinch-like and trees and baubles and sparkles and tinsel and laughing were banned. My eyes search her out in the crowd. She must be in the kitchen directing operations, so I head that way, only stopping when I hear familiar voices in the hallway. Nigel’s booming laugh followed by a quieter, higher-pitched, tone. She sounds just like Erin – their voices have the same timbre, but the tell-tale hairstyle confirms it’s Rachel, our daughter.
I scramble past strange faces but as soon as I near, I see that she’s brought Paul and I turn back on myself. Though I’ve heard about him, I’ve not met this older live-in lover of hers. Holding back, I watch from my vantage point. And while he doesn’t exactly have liver spots on his hands, it’s there. The age gap is, to me anyway, this big gaping thing standing tall, almost proud, between them. He’s a chino-wearing forty-year-old; shirt nicely ironed, fair hair a little too coiffured for my liking – screams ‘father figure’ – which makes me feel a little sick. Her two-tone, blue-bottomed, dreads are tied back in a ponytail; her silver nose ring glints under the light from the ceiling spotlights as she rests her head on Nigel’s shoulder. He’s hugging her tight and I want to do that so badly.
‘Jude here?’ she asks Nigel about her brother.
‘Jude’s taken a few days off,’ I hear his reply.
Jude is interning at the school where Nigel is head teacher and term-time breaks are not encouraged. I wonder if he’s already decided teacher training isn’t his thing – he’s never been great at sticking to things. I keep moving, disappointed I won’t see my son, acutely aware that I’ve always had many more flaws than him and that I spent the afternoon talking to a stuffed elephant.
‘Oh,’ Rachel replies, her neat eyebrows arching, ‘he never said. C’mon,’ she grabs Paul by the hand and says. ‘I’m famished, let’s find the birthday girl.’
I follow, feeling like the guy in that movie, Father of the Bride, chasing his daughter, not quite able to reach her, too many people in the way. Through the kitchen door, I can just about spot Lydia’s head, when some idiot bumps into me, spilling his drink on me, carries on walking. Christ, something’s telling me I should have just stayed away. I swear quietly. All I want to do is hug my daughter, hug my sister, and let them feel my arms around them.
I ask myself what Erin would say to me right now.
‘Get over yourself and get your ass in there. It’s a party! Go party! And maybe see what you make of Paul?’
Or something like that.
So, without her on my arm, that’s what I try to do.
It takes very little time for me to conclude that he’s a boring asshole not worthy of Rachel. If Erin were here, she’d have an elbow firmly wedged in my ribs, primed for an urgent poke. If Erin were here, she’d have hissed. ‘This is her choice, not yours.’
But Erin is not here, so after another hour, I slip away unnoticed and take the shorter route home.
THEN – March 2000
‘I’m not going.’
‘You are going.’
‘I can’t.’ Erin rubbed her palms on her jeans as she peered in the door at the cots. ‘I won’t be able to relax.’
‘Erin, you’re going.’
She watched as her friend Hannah hobbled across the living room towards where she stood in the doorway, felt her take her hand in hers.
‘Lydia will be here soon. There’s two of us, that’s one child each – just for one night. We’ll manage.’
Erin looked down, both eyebrows high, at Hannah’s cast on her ankle, a souvenir from her falling from a pavement after too many cocktails.
‘What?’ Hannah said. ‘Lydia can do any of the actual running after them.’ She wagged a finger. ‘You’re going. Now get in there, have a shower and pack – Dom will be home in forty minutes.’
Erin hugged herself tight before moving towards her bedroom.
‘He’s put a lot of effort into this,’ Hannah called after her. ‘Just wants to whisk you away from thankless motherhood. Erin, he wants to see you happy!’
In her bedroom, Erin rubbed her neck with both hands. She hated surprises. She held her breath and exhaled slowly. She couldn’t leave them … What if something happened? What if the same thing happened? You’re being ridiculous. Rachel and Jude will be two in a few months … Robotically, she stripped off her clothes, dropping them in a line on the way to the shower. ‘Rachel and Jude will be fine.’ She repeated the sentence over and over again, gently tapping her head on the tiles as she felt the comfort of the hot water on her neck. She placed her hands by her side, repeated the words again, ‘Rachel and Jude will be fine.’
In the car an hour later, Dom was like a child on Christmas Eve. He patted her thigh often during the ninety-minute journey to a small hotel on the edge of the New Forest.
‘We here?’ she asked as he drove up a snaking driveway.
Dom nodded. ‘Just in time for a quick change before dinner.’
They held hands as they entered the building, Dom carrying their one overnight bag. In the bedroom, he bounced on the edge of the four-poster bed and she laughed, opening the window. Leaning on the windowsill she said, ‘Hear that?’
‘What?’ he didn’t move.
‘Baa-aa. Baa-aa. Lambs, lots of them.’
‘We’re next door to a farm, it’s lambing season.’
‘It’s spring,’ she laughed. ‘I love that sound and the birdsong in the morning.’
‘Whereas me, I just love the sound of your laugh,’ he replied.
Erin sat beside him, leaned her head on his shoulder, and laced her fingers through his. ‘You should probably go and have a shower before dinner,’ she said. ‘I’m already done.’
‘You could join me. Look …’ He smudged her cheek with his thumb as if removing some dirt. ‘You missed a bit.’
She laughed. ‘Race you?’ She leapt up, tore off the two layers of clothes she wore on top. Braless, she grinned, pulled her jeans and knickers down and stepped free from them. ‘I win,’ she said, and turned to run.
Dom grabbed her hand. ‘Don’t.’ His voice was no more than a whisper. ‘Let me look at you.’
Instinctively, Erin crossed her arms over the breasts that had fed the twins for three exhausting months when they were newborns. Her eyes glanced down at the fleshy part around her middle and she fought the urge to cower, to hide. She knew what should happen. She wanted it to happen. In the last year, she could count the few times they’d made love. No, she corrected herself, they’d had sex, where their bodies met while both of them had an ear open for the kids. She longed to make love again, to be touched slowly by him again. It was time.
Dom stood and, still fully clothed, pulled her to him. She felt him stiffen against her as a memory flashed – a time just after they’d first met when they’d played strip poker. She’d won but took off her clothes for him anyway – slowly, teasing, burlesque-like. ‘Not fair,’ she whispered now. ‘Get naked or get lost.’
She watched him peel his clothes from his body. His sweater, he reached with one hand on the back of his neck and pulled it over his head. His jeans, and boxers, he lowered slowly.
Erin met his gaze as he rolled his socks off with his feet. ‘We’ll be late for dinner.’ She raised her eyebrows in an arch as she took his offered hand.
‘We will,’ he nodded.
And together they moved, naked, slow dancing through the room, as if glued to one another at their hips. Each of them held a hand in the air at shoulder height, laced their fingers together. Their free hands curled around one another’s necks. Erin stroked the skin just beneath his hairline. They circled slowly, totally in time, as if a slow ballad filled the air.
‘We never did find a song.’ Her lips grazed Dom’s ear.
He stopped moving. ‘Let’s agree. We’ll turn the radio on now, and whatever’s playing is meant to be. It’s our song.’
Erin panicked. ‘What if it’s that Chumbawamba thing? Or the Britney one about something one more time? Or—’
‘Have faith.’ Dom leaned across, keeping hold of her and switched the radio on.
Immediately, Erin smiled. ‘“At Last”,’ she said. ‘Etta James. How perfect is that?’
‘It is,’ Dom agreed, pulling her back to him.
‘You’ve never heard of it, have you?’ she laughed.
‘Nope, but you’re right. It’s perfect.’
The next morning the car needed two minutes to warm up and Erin glanced at her wrist.
‘Four times,’ Dom told her. ‘That’s every thirty seconds you’ve looked at your watch.
She made a face. ‘Sorry. It’s just I’m anxious to get back now.’
Dom groaned. ‘Can’t we revel in the early morning love-making for just a little longer?’
She bit her tongue as he put the car into gear. All she wanted to do was get home, see the children, put her pyjamas on and cuddle up, all of them huddled on the sofa. She switched the radio on, kept the volume low. ‘You know, I normally hate surprises, really I do, but that was a lovely thing you did. The hotel, the late dinner …’ They both laughed. ‘Thank you, Dom,’ she added, ‘Just in case you didn’t hear me last night, thank you.’
Her husband pursed his lips and blew her a kiss. ‘But surprises are a no-no …?’
‘Have I changed your mind?’
‘Maybe. Yes, I mean. Agh, no, sorry. I still hate surprises. Think it’s about being in control.’
‘No shit, really?’ His look told her he already knew that much.
‘No … surprises are not cool … like, when I found a wad of bookie receipts stuffed into your suit pocket.’ Erin angled herself in the seat to look right at him. A tell-tale flush, just pink enough creeping up his neck. ‘Dom?’
He stared ahead. ‘That was months ago.’
‘Yes, I know, but …’ she chose her words carefully, unsure about the timing of this conversation. She didn’t want to spoil things but had promised herself to talk to him about it. ‘I just want to be sure you’re not risking money we can’t afford to lose, especially when you go to that club of your dad’s.’
She watched him slowly scratch the stubble on the end of his chin. ‘I know he calls it a gentlemen’s club,’ she said, ‘and I’ve already checked with your mother that there are no strippers—’
Dom laughed, turning to glance at her. ‘You “checked with my mother that there are no strippers”. How did that go down?’
‘She laughed at me. Explained that it was just a posh members-only place with poker games and roulette tables.’
‘That’s about it. But you know all this, Erin.’
‘I suppose I do. I think I just want you to tell me you never gamble there, that bookies are your limit. Betting there seems like something we definitely can’t afford.’
Dom chewed his bottom lip while Erin regretted saying a word.
‘You’ve nothing to worry about.’ He patted her knee and she sighed aloud. ‘Honestly.’
‘Good, because money’s going to be tight with the new mortgage.’ Erin swallowed her concerns enough to allow a smile at the fact that from the following Tuesday they would own their own home. The flat at Hawthorn Avenue, the place she so loved living, would be theirs. Sure, it was small, the twins had to share a room, but as Dom had pointed out when the idea was first muted – stay there a few years, by which time he’d be earning more, and then they’d move to somewhere bigger. It was a hugely generous thing his parents had done – selling them the flat at the price they had paid for it five years earlier, handing them the equity already gained.
She was thinking of her generous parents-in-law when Dom spoke again.
‘Do you really hate surprises?’
‘It’s just I didn’t know that about you.’
‘I suppose there’s a lot we still don’t know about one another.’
‘So, say if I won the lottery and only told you when we got the cheque?’
She frowned. ‘That wouldn’t work. I’d want to know sooner.’
‘The control thing. The fact that it would be something we’d both have to decide how to handle. I mean would we remain anonymous, for example? All of that would have to be decided before we got the cheque.’
‘You wouldn’t trust me to make the right decision for us?’ He glanced again, eyes wide and Erin hesitated for just a fraction too long. ‘Really?’ Dom shook his head laughing. ‘To hell with that. If we ever win the lottery, I’m going to surprise you with it.’
‘If we ever win the lottery, you’d better tell me and don’t try and double the amount either in a bookies or your dad’s club before you get home.’
‘Ooo-hhh.’ He winced. ‘Noted. And I’ve learned you definitely don’t like surprises.’
Erin flushed. ‘Last night was a lovely surprise, I—’
‘You’re just an ungrateful wench,’ he teased.
‘Stop, Dom, I loved it. I …’
‘Relax, love. I’m messing with you.’
Erin dropped her head back on the headrest.
‘Why don’t you try and sleep for half an hour. When we’re home with the twins crawling all over us, you’ll wish you had.’
She closed her eyes. ‘Thank you.’ Reaching across she found his hand on the gear stick. ‘For everything.’
Erin leapt backwards in the doorway almost knocking Dom over. In the same moment, she caught sight of a sea of faces lining the hallway. She spotted Fitz, at the back, as always. In front of him were her in-laws and above the picture rail running the whole length of the room was a sign: “Congratulations on your new home!”
He whispered in her ear. ‘Sorry.’
Erin forced a smile as Hannah limped forwards and handed a crying Jude to her and Dom headed to Lydia to take a silent Rachel’s hand. ‘I tried to tell him,’ Hannah murmured. ‘Tried to say you wouldn’t like it.’ Erin cuddled Jude, bounced him on her hip, fought a strong urge to turn around and run. Fast. Back to the forest in Hampshire. She shook her head at the glass offered by Nigel.
‘Just a toast, love,’ he urged, so she took it.
Lydia was by his side. ‘Good time?’ she asked.
‘Lovely,’ Erin smiled. ‘Thanks for being here. Were they okay for you?’
‘Good as gold until an hour ago. Jude’s tired. He needs a nap.’
‘I’ll put him down now, then we’ll catch up.’
In the twin’s bedroom, she paced the floor holding Jude, whose head was crooked into her neck. With her right hand, Erin stroked the little boy’s sandy hair with the barest of feather-light fingertip touches they both loved. Within minutes, he slept, a soft snore fluttering through his little mouth. ‘Jude and Rachel will be fine’, she whispered to the darkened room as she lay him down on his back. She blew him a kiss, put her hand on the cold brass door handle and took a very deep breath. On the other side of the door, she closed it softly, trying not to wake him and headed towards the noise of the living room to find Rachel and Dom.
Across the span of people, she spotted Fitz and smiled. It was so good to see him. Her father had a way of refilling her well, making her see the positive in everything. As she made her way to him, she watched as he stood aside and with a dramatic sweep of his hands revealed her brother, Rob, whom she hadn’t seen since he visited briefly two years ago. Erin’s hand went to her mouth. Next to Rob, Dom with Rachel balanced on his hip, raised a glass in her direction. ‘Surprise,’ he mouthed, and she burst into tears.
6th March 2000
You do so much for me. (Thank you for the wonderful night away, and for Rob!) Thank you, thank you, Dom. You get me, and I love you.
Remember when we were lying in bed in the hotel talking and you promised then to try harder at this; try harder at coming to these pages. I think you heard me when I said I find it easier, safer.
Today, because we’re feeling close right now, I’m able to open up to you about how I’m feeling, how I’m actually struggling. And also, because tomorrow, though there’s no actual moving involved, we will own the flat, it feels like a new chapter. So, here goes:
If I’m honest I think you already know. I think you’ve probably tried to talk to me about it and I’ve shut you down before. I’m sorry.
I suffer with the most awful, consuming, frightening anxiety. When I feel it coming, it’s terrifying because there’s nothing I can do to stop it except pass through it as best I can, knowing it won’t last, knowing I’ll get to the other side. When you’ve tried to talk to me and you’ve used the words, ‘postnatal depression’ I get pissed off because this is nothing to do with having been pregnant. The fact is, my stomach’s been twisting around itself for years. I’ve been dealing with anxiety of some sort since the day Fitz told me my mother was dying. I was sixteen.
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